Cossacks flock to help Orthodox kin

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The Independent Online
BELGRADE - After the Iranian mujahedin descended on central Bosnia to support the Muslims, it was inevitable the Cossacks would pop up on the other side of the front line, battling for their Orthodox Slav kin among the Serbs, writes Marcus Tanner.

More than 500 so-called Cossacks are fighting with Bosnian Serb forces against their Catholic and Muslim enemies, according to a rapturous Serbian television report, which predicted a flood of Russian volunteers.

A dozen were filmed recently trudging through the snow in the hills of eastern Bosnia, near the battlefronts of Skelanic and Bratunac. A Belgrade newspaper last week devoted its inside pages to Russian volunteers killed in the fighting there.

Not all the Cossacks seem quite sure what they are up to. A volunteer interviewed by Duga magazine in Belgrade said: 'I am sorry I am not fighting the Americans. I don't really hate Muslims.'

Cossack fighters are only the thin end of the wedge. Enraged nationalists, hardline communists and assorted Russian malcontents are making their way to Serbia, as if on a pilgrimage.

Serbian opposition leaders claim the visitors are on the payroll of the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and say the 'Cossacks' are mercenaries, paid dollars 100 (pounds 70) a month.

Paid for or not, once ensconced in Belgrade and placed in front of a television camera, the Russian visitors enthusiastically echo the official Serbian line concerning a CIA-Muslim-Vatican plot aimed at wiping Orthodox Serbia and Russia from the map.

When the Russian nationalist poet Eduard Limonov visited Serbia, he delighted his hosts by travelling to the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale, donning battledress and firing a machine-gun at the hapless citizens of Sarajevo.

For the embattled Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, reactivating the ancient ties between Serbia and Russia, allies in the First and Second World Wars, is the key to ending Serbia's diplomatic isolation.

Plaintive appeals to Moscow for a joint front against Western Catholic and capitalist foes have struck a chord among Russian conservatives. Russia's parliament has chastised Russian reformists under Boris Yeltsin for endorsing United Nations sanctions against Serbia, and is demanding sanctions be slapped on Croatia instead. Infuriated by Mr Yeltsin's cool response to Serbian pleas, Mr Milosevic last week said Russia's support for UN sanctions was 'shameful'.

But for Russian officials in Serbia, the fighters, malcontents and dotty poets turning up are embarrassing. 'The so-called Cossacks are just adventurers, veterans from the fighting in Afghanistan or Moldova,' said one official in Belgrade. 'The Serbian government is working hard on the Russian opposition, but there is actually very little interest among Russians in Serbia. It is a case of wishful thinking.'

Defending Mr Yeltsin against the charge of acting 'shamefully', Russia's Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, warned Serbs not to expect his country to line up with Serbia. 'We would alienate our own non-Slav and non-Orthodox citizens in Russia, not to mention our non-Slav partners in the CIS who lean towards Islam.'

Mr Kozyrev added that he was all for close links between Slavs, 'but not for whipping up Slavs against other nations and dividing Slavs on a religious basis. That would be a catastrophe, leading the world back into medieval-style religious antagonisms.

'We would be back in the same situation as on the eve of the First World War, with Europe divided not only between Christians against Muslims but between Catholics against Orthodox.'